How Gaming Pros Help Big Companies

Are companies missing a fantastic asset in their customer base?

SAN FRANCISCO – What does zapping aliens have to do selling more phone services, computers or even books? Plenty, according to Lyle Fong, co-founder and CEO of Lithium Technologies. In a session at the Web 2.0 conference here, Fong described how hardcore customers share many of the same characteristics of hardcore gamers. Fong knows a thing or two about the latter group, he and his brother Dennis were once professional gamers.

With Lithium, Fong set out on a more real-world challenge, helping companies like Dell, Sprint and Barnes & Noble gain more customers. Dell actually had a role in starting Lithium. Fong was running a popular gaming site called which included a very active community chat, tips and tricks section. One of the users was a Dell (NASDAQ:DELL) executive who contacted Fong about bringing the community involvement aspect to Dell's site. The result was a licensing deal back in 1999 for Dell's popular Community Forum (not to be confused with Dell's IdeaStorm which was not a Lithium project).

"We then spun off Lithium to see if we could replicate that experience for other enterprise customers," recalled Fong.

It worked.

Fong said Lithium's been able to attract more business as companies realize traditional marketing methods aren't enough. Even though many companies fear public postings about their products, Fong said more are starting to realize the Internet lets anyone have their say so they might as well do more to help influence positive buzz.

"Fundamentally customers are in control," said Fong, noting there are over 100 million blogs and 175,000 new ones created every day. "They might not trust the company, but they do trust other users."

Rather than fear those postings, he suggests companies embrace the community of supporters and customers and, in particular the extremely loyal ones. What Fong found on the gaming site turns out to be true for other industries – hardcore, dedicated customers can be a great asset. Companies like Lithium help set up community sites that offer recognition for active users and those rated by other users as helpful.

In the gaming world Fong said it's not unusual for a World of Warcraft champ to kill every monster and win every quest, multiple times. But the addiction is not in winning the game per se. "It's their reputation online where they're revered as gods, they get addicted to that," said Fong.

A properly constructed community site sets incremental levels of rewards and recognition that Fong said keeps these unpaid, de facto customer support and sometime product endorsers, coming back. At some Lithium customer sites, posters are given different colored icons to reflect how helpful they've been answering community site questions. At the highest reward level they are given the ability to help manage the site -- delete and edit other people's posts and generally help police the community. Fong noted one participants on the AT&T Wireless forum who achieved the highest, VIP ranking.

"Funny thing is she's a Verizon customer, but it's just hard to leave," he said.

These product fanatics can save companies serious money in support. At Dell's site Fong said one super user has been answering questions online since 1999. "He's answered over 22,000 questions. And there are at least hundred of these super users at the Dell site."

Gaming the system

Gaming sites are often full of tips, tricks and "cheats" for getting higher scores. Sometimes the participants themselves "game" the system to get a higher community site ranking. Fong said it's no different at a more traditional company's community site. "Some of them spend hours and days at the site and will stop at nothing to game the system," said Fong. For example, some will create phony posts or responses to help earn virtual badges or other recognition.

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